As You Like It
St Paul's Church, Covent Garden
With their fourth summer promenade production in the garden of the Actors' Church, Iris Theatre, the resident company, seems to have become an established feature of the London "summer". Fortunately on their gala first night their production team were well equipped with plastic macs and bin bags to put on wet turf and benches. As a sunny evening fades to darkness, outdoor Shakespeare can take on an extra magic that can make even a mediocre production seem a pleasure, but rain can be a dampener in every sense and really tests the quality of the playing.
Iris Theatre pulled it off. Rain seemed to be taking a break as performance time approached and kept away for most of the first half, when lowering grey skies, ill-matched to Filipe Gomes's track of songbirds and cooing doves, the drips and drizzle started just before the interval. The rain grew stronger as the second act began but some nifty shifting of a refreshment gazebo gave shelter for some in the succeeding scene and the actors gallantly went on unabashed, taking the brunt of it, and the audience went along with them. The obvious enjoyment of a large group of youngsters, probably being taken to their first Shakespeare, showed it was working, the wetting all part of the fun in this tale of good and wicked brothers, young loves and bucolic philosophising.
Emily Tucker's Rosalind may go goggle-eyed at first sight of Joe Forte's Orlando when she sees him stripped-off for wrestling, but when she's in breeches disguised as Ganymede she is quite a manipulator. There is no doubt who led childhood games with Fiona Geddes's charming cousin Celia. Tucker's lively personality is at the centre of Daniel Winder's fast-moving production.
Matthew Mellalieu doubles the girls' fathers, good Duke Senior and usurping Duke William, who in this production following Orlando's defeat of champion wrestler Charles also takes the Orlando for a bout—and, if that were not enough, drags up to play goatherd Audrey too. It is a very physical production from the start with Orlando fighting with his brother, flinging William Reay's Oliver on the hard flagstones of the churchyard before being driven out of the his home. While at one moment a body may come thudding at your feet, at another you may get to share some bread with Duke Senior's men in their woodland home.
Diana Kashlan's cross-dressed Touchstone takes physical to the frantic, all fists and elbows she drives the text along; it didn't make it any easier to follow but it got the laughs, which is no small feat for Shakespeare's clowns with a modern audience. As a lovely Old Adam and a gentle Corin, Iris veteran John Harwood's experience once again stands out with an unforced projection that sets an example for this mainly young company.
Despite the cruelties that set it going, this is a light hearted play against which Tom Deplae's Jacques (contrastingly doubled with Charles) strikes a reflective note, his experience in the greenwood producing a very different reaction to the holiday, party atmosphere that the audience is encouraged to share. There is a bridge between that melancholy and joyfulness in the use of music in this production. Making use of actors‘ instrumental skills as well as voices, it adds extra songs (including a bawdy one for Audrey) and one of the great delights of this production is Christopher Rowland's Amiens; pure voiced and charming, he too knows how to effortlessly project and draw the audience to him with a quality much more than boy band candy.
Sophia Anastasiou's costumes start off with the men in Victorian frock coats and top hats, the ladies in dresses that could be from an Inigo Jones masque, everything black, white or grey, with cream curled wigs for Rosalind and Celia, but that gives way to bucolic buffs and browns as things move to the forest.
Set designer Tessa Battisti has grafted wickerwork arches on to the church garden's trees, giving an enclosure that helps draw the audience in and yet allows a glimpse beyond the scene of Orlando posting poems to Rosalind on other trees. A mistake to narrow doorway of the church into a cave entrance, it seriously slows down audience entry, but once inside the church she has crafted huge flowers that hover in Benjamin Polya's misted golden light which, especially after the rain outside, made for a glowing happy ending.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton